Friday, March 24, 2017

iPhone Perspective

When the Utah representative, promoting the new healthcare plan, suggested that people could spend money on healthcare “[r]ather than getting that new iPhone,” it pushed some people’s hot button.  A few days later Wired came out with the headline “No, iPhones Aren’t Luxury Items. They’re Economic Necessities.”  In it the author explains how, only ten years after their introduction, iPhones and similar smartphones have moved from the novelty category to must-haves.  To get ahead and stay ahead, “you have to stay connected in an economy built on the assumption that anyone is always reachable anywhere.”

Of course, you would expect Wired to take this stance, just as Car and Driver might scoff at people wanting to ride their horses to work.  But they make some strong arguments.  Even if the lawmaker was referring only to those who buy the newest model, discarding a perfectly functional phone, he probably picked a poor analogy.  What Wired can’t argue is that all Americans make excellent decisions when prioritizing their spending.

Given that Wired is right and iPhones are in fact a necessity, there are still two disturbing aspects of the article.  One has to do with perspective and the other with magic-money-tree thinking.

Perspective helps us take the long view, in this case to look back and understand how we got here and where we are heading.  Only ten years ago this condition of constantly being connected was not nearly as urgent.  Twenty years ago, it was not even possible, except for a few very rich or innovative with their car phones or big, clunky handheld portable telephones, both of which were limited to making phone calls.

Today we must think about society in terms of Moore’s Law, the insight that processing power doubles every 18 to 24 months, exponential growth.  You buy a new computer and it seems obsolete a few months later.  By some accounts you have more computing power in your smartphone than on Apollo 11.  And things just keep getting smaller, faster and more connected.  On their website Intel proudly states, “The inexpensive, ubiquitous computing rapidly expanding all around us is fundamentally changing the way we work, play and communicate.”

The perspective question is how are we changing with it?  Are we struggling to keep up?  We may be technologically savvy, but how many parts of our lives are falling through the cracks?  How are we reacting to the big and small threats that accompany these rapid advances?  If we are getting so advanced and sophisticated, why do we still face so many basic problems:  retirement insecurity, the obesity epidemic, inadequate sleep, a struggling education system and fears that our children and grandchildren will have shorter, less happy lives as they struggle to pay off overwhelming personal and public debt?

That fundamental change in work, play and communication has not translated into a fundamental change in thinking and behavior.  So many decisions are still reactions.  We use social media to fight with strangers or stress about frightening potential outcomes based on politically motivated predictions.  We blithely share our personal data, while constantly on guard against hacking and identity theft.  Our focus is distracted from simple solutions (like eat less and exercise more) by the constant barrage of demands on our time.  Faulty behavior in the five key dimensions results from everyone walking through life staring at a device while processing the information with a primitive brain (evidenced by PSAs reminding parents to tell kids to stop texting while crossing the street).

The magic-money-tree aspect of that article is also a problem.  They cite the following:  “Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council declared that the internet was a basic human right.”  This is the same organization that protested when Detroit turned off the water supply to those who were seriously delinquent in paying their bills.  The UN likewise called access to clean water a human right – even if you won’t or can’t pay for it. 

The UN, Wired and many others must understand that rights are recognized and respected not granted.  We have rights to free speech, religion, to bear arms, etc.  Those rights are guaranteed by a requirement on the government not to interfere or deny them.  They are not like these UN-established rights, a good or service you can demand that the government or someone else pay for.  A declaration of these rights does not make the cost go away.  

Yet we scurry through our lives as they become exponentially more complex, texting, taking calls or making appointments on the run, mystified by such basic economic concepts.  Without better performance in the five key dimensions, how will we ever be successful in this new, fundamentally changing society?  If what was brand new ten years ago can become a necessity today and technology is growing exponentially, we must be alert and approach new threats and risks deliberately, not with the same behavioral habits as our ancient ancestors.

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